French women of a certain age are the very essence of their rich culture, the standard bearers of its traditions, elegance, and art de vivre. Having lived among them for more than 25 years, I’ve watched the decades pass and I can attest to the fact that they become more and more fascinating over time while remaining ever-youthful inside and out.
For many years, my preoccupation—bordering on obsession, I admit—has been: Why do French women d’un certain age tend to look better than the rest of us?
Let me clarify. They don’t always look younger than we do, but generally they do tend to look better. And they definitely present themselves in a chicer, more soignée, more polished package that makes them appear younger. Furthermore, they seem to pull this off with the greatest of ease, while taking a sensuous pleasure in every gesture.
For years, I’ve wanted to decode the mystery, understand the phenomenon. What do they know that we—by whom I mean every non-French woman over 40—don’t? What do they do that we don’t? And can everyone please, please stop explaining how innately chic they are by using the ubiquitous phrase, je ne sais quoi—“that little inexplicable something”—to explain why French women are so clever and we’re not.
We know it’s partially demeanor. But maybe what many of us don’t realize is that pragmatism is a crucial element in their attitude. Instead of dreading a birthday, they see the day as an excuse for a celebration of a life well-lived, full of experience and adventure, and perhaps a good reason to go shopping and have a facial before taking their time dressing to perfection for a dinner honoring another anniversaire.
They accept their ages. But they never lose the desire or the discipline to look the very best they can, every day. Some have little “tweaks,” but none wants radical change. Basically, they like themselves, or they’ve learned to accept themselves and make the very best of their natural resources. With the exception, say, of Catherine Deneuve, few French women are great beauties. They are better than that—far more interesting and unique, and that’s the way they like it. They do not aspire to be anyone other than themselves. Look at Inés de la Fressange, for example. She is one-of-a-kind and spectacular. Is she a classic beauty? No, she is not.
And what does she recommend as the world’s most important, ageless beauty secret? A smile. I don’t believe I have ever seen a picture of her without one.
Among my friends and acquaintances, I see little complaining about the march of time unless in jest about the necessity to loosen a favorite belt a notch or two or wear it slung lower (but never abandoned). We discuss our favorite face creams, to cut or not to cut our hair, the sometime unpleasant truths about upper arms, the life-changing benefits of kiwis for breakfast, whether to retry the Dr. Dukin diet or not. . . . all accompanied by detours about what books we’re reading, who saw the latest art exhibition, what did you think about the new trend in political primaries, have you seen the latest app on flower arranging?
You see, this is all part of their allure. French women are curious, not necessarily spontaneous, but most definitely informed and lively. They have opinions—informed opinions—and love nothing better than a heated, though never aggressive, debate. They are, as you know, great flirts. Harmless coquetry, sparkling exchanges, and charm are their greatest arms. All timeless.
What we sometimes forget—and the media are helping us lose our memories in this regard—is that beauty, style, sensuality, generosity, wit, and charm have no expiration dates. We must learn to believe this and act accordingly. Act like a French woman.
Like anything worth doing well, two essential elements are de rigueur in their lives: discipline and dedication. With few exceptions, French women start to take very good care of themselves in their 30s (if not before). They eat well, drink little, and take the time necessary to perform their serious daily toilette, the ritual ablutions of skin, hair and body care. Their skin maintenance regimes are not annoyingly necessary obligations anymore than the makeup they blithely (and lightly) apply each morning. These daily ministrations are pleasurable. They are pampering, they are stress-releasing, they have physical and psychological benefits. They are a woman’s investment in herself, the best investment she can make—the one that keeps paying back, not only for her, but for all those she loves and even those she encounters for a few seconds never to see again.
Next: Getting specific—makeup, clothing, and attitude.